This page will take you into pieces of literature that are carefully selected for their great content at the literary, scientific, or philosophical level. A short selection will be presented in full. A long one will be divided into sections that will be refreshed regularly. Emphasis and highlights are mostly ours, not made by the original author.
Here is our current selection:
Fan, the Story of a Young Girl's Life (1892)
by Henry Harford (W.H. Hudson)
A misty evening in mid-October; a top room in one of the small dingy houses on the north side of Moon Street, its floor partially covered with pieces of drugget carpet trodden into rags; for furniture, an iron bed placed against the wall, a deal cupboard or wardrobe, a broken iron cot in a corner, a wooden box and three or four chairs, and a small square deal table; on the table one candle in a tin candlestick gave light to the two occupants of the room. One of these a woman sitting in a listless attitude before the grate, fireless now, although the evening was damp and chilly. She appeared strong, but just now was almost repulsive to look at as she sat there in her dirty ill-fitting gown, with her feet thrust out before her, showing her broken muddy boots. Her features were regular, even handsome; that, however, was little in her favour when set against the hard red colour of her skin, which told of habitual intemperance, and the expression, half sullen and half reckless, of her dark eyes, as she sat there staring into the empty grate. There were no white threads yet in her thick long hair that had once been black and glossy, unkempt now, like everything about her, with a dusky dead look in it.
On the cot in the corner rested or crouched a girl not yet fifteen years old, the woman's only child: she was trying to keep herself warm there, sitting close against the wall with her knees drawn up to enable her to cover herself, head included, with a shawl and an old quilt. Both were silent: at intervals the girl would start up out of her wrappings and stare towards the door with a startled look on her face, apparently listening. From the street sounded the shrill animal-like cries of children playing and quarrelling, and, further away, the low, dull, continuous roar of traffic in the Edgware Road. Then she would drop back again, to crouch against the wall, drawing the quilt about her, and remain motionless until a step on the stair or the banging of a door below would startle her once more.
Meanwhile her mother maintained her silence and passive attitude, only stirring when the light grew very dim; then she would turn half round, snuff the wick off with her fingers, and wipe them on her shabby dirty dress.
At length the girl started up, throwing her quilt quite off, and remained seated on the edge of her cot, the look of anxiety increasing every moment on her thin pale face. In the matter of dress she seemed even worse off than her mother, and wore an old tattered earth-coloured gown, which came down to within three or four inches of her ankles, showing under it ragged stockings and shoes trodden down at heel, so much too large for her feet that they had evidently belonged to her mother. She looked tall for her years, but this was owing to her extreme thinness. Her arms were like sticks, and her sunken cheeks showed the bones of her face; but it was a pathetic face, both on account of the want and anxiety so plainly written on it and its promise of beauty. There was not a particle of colour in it, even the thin lips were almost white, but the eyes were of the purest grey, shaded by long dark lashes; while her hair, hanging uneven and disordered to her shoulders, was of a pure golden brown.
"Mother, he's coming!" said the girl.
"Let him come!" returned the other, without looking up or stirring.
Slowly the approaching footsteps came nearer, stumbling up the dark, narrow staircase; then the door was pushed open and a man entered--a broad-chested, broad-faced rough-looking man with stubbly whiskers, wearing the dress and rusty boots of a labourer.
He drew a chair to the table and sat down in silence. Presently he turned to his wife.
"Well, what have you got to say?" he asked, in a somewhat unsteady voice.
"Nothing," she returned. "What have you got?"
"I've got tired of walking about for a job, and I want something to eat and drink, and that's what I've got."
"Then you'd better go where you can get it," said she. "You can't find work, but you can find drink, and you ain't sober now."
For only answer he began whistling and drumming noisily on the table. Suddenly he paused and looked at her.
"Ain't you done that charring job, then?" he asked with a grin.
"Yes; and what's more, I got a florin and gave it to Mrs. Clark," she replied.
"You blarsted fool! what did you do that for?"
"Because I'm not going to have my few sticks taken for rent and be turned into the street with my girl. That's what I did it for; and if you won't work you'll starve, so don't you come to me for anything."
Again he drummed noisily on the table, and hummed or tried to hum a tune. Presently he spoke again:
"What's Fan been a-doing, then?"
"You know fast enough; tramping about the streets to sell a box of matches. A nice thing!"
"How much did she get?"
To this question no answer was returned.
"What did she get, I arsk you?" he repeated, getting up and putting his hand heavily on her shoulder.
"Enough for bread," she replied, shaking his hand off.
"How much?" But as she refused to answer, he turned to the girl and repeated in a threatening tone, "How much?"
She sat trembling, her eyes cast down, but silent.
"I'll learn you to answer when you're spoken to, you damn barstard!" he said, approaching her with raised hand.
"Don't you hit her, you brute!" exclaimed his wife, springing in sudden anger to her feet.
"Oh, father, don't hit me--oh, please don't--I'll tell--I'll tell! I got eighteenpence," cried the girl, shrinking back terrified.
He turned and went back to his seat, grinning at his success in getting at the truth. Presently he asked his wife if she had spent eighteenpence in bread.
"No, I didn't. I got a haddock for morning, and two ounces of tea, and a loaf, and a bundle of wood," she returned sullenly.
After an interval of a couple of minutes he got up, went to the cupboard, and opened it.
"There's the haddy right enough," he said. "No great things--cost you thrippence, I s'pose. Tea tuppence-ha'penny, and that's fivepence-ha'penny, and a ha'penny for wood, and tuppence-ha'penny for a loaf makes eightpence-ha'penny. There's more'n ninepence over, Margy, and all I want is a pint of beer and a screw. Threepence--come now."
"I've nothing to give you," she returned doggedly.
"Then what did you do with it? How much gin did you drink--eh?"
"As much as I could get," she answered defiantly.
He looked at her, whistled and drummed, then got up and went out.
"Mother, he's gone," whispered Fan.
"No such luck. He's only going to ask Mrs. Clark if I gave her the florin. He won't be long you'll see."
Very soon he did return and sat down again. "A pint and a screw, that's all I want," he said, as if speaking to himself, and there was no answer. Then he got up, put his hand on her shoulder, and almost shook her out of her chair. "Don't you hear?" he shouted.
"Let me alone, you drunken brute; I've got nothing, I tell you," she returned, and after watching his face a few moments settled down again.
"All right, old woman, I'll leave you," he said, dropping his hands. But suddenly changing his mind, he swung round and dealt her a heavy blow.
She sprang up with a scream of anger and pain, and taking no notice of Fan's piteous cries and pleadings, rushed at him; they struggled together for some moments, but the man was the strongest; very soon he flung her violently from him, and reeling away to some distance, and unable to recover her balance, she finally fell heavily on to the floor.
"Oh, mother, mother, he has killed you," sobbed Fan, throwing herself down beside the fallen woman and trying to raise her head.
"That I will, and you too," remarked the man, going back to his seat.
The woman, recovering from the shock, struggled to her feet and sat down again on her chair. She was silent, looking now neither angry nor frightened, but seemed half-dazed, and bending forward a little she covered her eyes with her hand.
"Oh, mother, poor mother--are you hurt?" whispered Fan, trying to draw the hand away to look into the bowed face.
"You go back to your corner and leave your mother to me," he said; and Fan, after hesitating a few moments, rose and shrank away.
Presently he got up again, and seizing his wife by the wrist, dragged her hand forcibly from her face.
"Where's the coppers, you blarsted drunkard?" he shouted in her ear. "D'ye think to get off with the little crack on the crown I've giv' you? I'll do for you tonight if you won't hand over."
"Oh, father, father!" cried the girl, starting up in an agony of terror. "Oh, have mercy and don't hit her, and I'll go out and try to get threepence. Oh, father, there's nothing in the house!"
"Then go, and don't be long about it," he said, going back to his seat.
The mother roused herself at this.
"You sha'n't stir a step tonight, Fan," she said, but in a voice not altogether resolute. "What'll come to you, going into the streets at this time of night?"
"Something grand, like what's come to her mother, perhaps," said he with a laugh.
"Not a step, Fan, if I die for it," retorted the mother, stung by his words. But the girl quickly and with trembling hands had already thrust on her old shapeless hat, and wrapped her shawl about her; then she took a couple of boxes of safety matches, old and greasy from long use, and moved towards the door as her mother rose to prevent her from going out.
"Oh, mother, let me go," she pleaded. "It's best for all of us. It'll kill me to stay in. Let me go, mother; I sha'n't be long."
Her mother still protested; but Fan, seeing her irresolution, slipped past her and was out of the door in a moment.
Once out of the house she ran swiftly along the dark sloppy street until she came to the wide thronged thoroughfare, bright with the flaring gas of the shops; then, after a few moments' hesitation, walked rapidly northwards.
Even in that squalid street where she lived, those who knew Fan from living in the same house, or in one of those immediately adjoining it, considered it a disgraceful thing for her parents to send her out begging; for that was what they called it, although the begging was made lawful by the match-selling pretext. To them it was a very flimsy one, since the cost of a dozen such boxes at any oil-shop in the Edgware Road was twopence-three-farthings--eleven farthings for twelve boxes of safety matches! The London poor know how hard it is to live and pay their weekly rent, and are accustomed to make every allowance for each other; and those who sat in judgment on the Harrods--Fan's parents--were mostly people who were glad to make a shilling by almost any means; glad also, many of them, to get drunk occasionally when the state of the finances
allowed it; also they regarded it as the natural and right thing to do to repair regularly every Monday morning to the pawnbroker's shop to pledge the Sunday shoes and children's frocks, with perhaps a tool or two or a pair of sheets and blankets not too dirty and ragged to tempt the cautious gentleman with the big nose.
But they were not disreputable, they knew where to draw the line. Had Fan been a coarse-fibred girl with a ready insolent tongue and fond of horse-play, it would not have seemed so shocking; for such girls, and a large majority of them are like that, seem fitted to fight their way in the rough brutish world of the London streets; and if they fall and become altogether bad, that only strikes one as the almost inevitable result of girlhood passed in such conditions. That Fan was a shy, modest, pretty girl, with a delicate type of face not often seen among those of her class, made the case look all the worse for those who sent her out, exposing her to almost certain ruin.
Poor unhappy Fan knew what they thought, and to avoid exciting remarks she always skulked away, concealing her little stock-in-trade beneath her dilapidated shawlat a safe distance from the outspoken criticisms of Moon Street. Sometimes in fine weather her morning expeditions were as far as Netting Hill, and as she frequently
appeared at the same places at certain hours, a few individuals got to know her; in some instances they had began by regarding the poor dilapidated girl with a kind of resentment, a feeling which, after two or three glances at her soft grey timid eyes, turned to pity; and from such as these who were not political economists, when she was so lucky as to meet them, she always got a penny, or a threepenny-bit, sometimes with even a kind word added, which made the gift seem a great deal to her. From others she received many a sharp rebuke for her illicit way of getting a living; and these without a second look would pass on, little knowing how keen a pang had been inflicted to make the poor shamefaced child's lot still harder to bear.
She had never been out so late before, and hurrying along the wet pavement, trembling lest she should run against some Moon Street acquaintance, and stung with the thought of the miserable scene in store for her should she be compelled to return empty-handed, she walked not less than half a mile before pausing. Then she drew forth the concealed matches and began the piteous pleading--"Will you please buy a box of matches?" spoken in a low tremulous voice to each passer-by, unheeded by those who were preoccupied with their own thoughts, by all others looked scornfully at, until at last, tired and dispirited, she turned to retrace the long hopeless road. And now the thoughts of home became at every yard of the way more painful and even terrifying to her. What a misery to have to face it--to have to think of it! But to run away and hide herself from her parents, and escape for ever from her torturing apprehensions, never entered her mind. She loved her poor drink-degraded mother; there was no one else for her to love, and where her mother was there must be her only home. But the thought of her father was like a nightmare to her; even the remembrance of his often brutal treatment and language made her tremble. Father she had always called him, but for some months past, since he had been idle, or out of work as he called it, he had become more and more harsh towards her, not often addressing her without calling her "barstard," usually with the addition of one of his pet expletives, profane or sanguineous. She had always feared and shrunk from him, regarding him as her enemy and the chief troubler of her peace; and his evident dislike of her had greatly increased during her last year at the Board School, when he had more than once been brought before a magistrate and fined for her non-attendance. When that time was over, and he was no longer compelled by law to keep her at school, he had begun driving her out to beg in the streets, to make good what her "book-larning," as he contemptuously expressed it, had cost him. And the miserable wife had allowed it, after some violent scenes and occasional protests, until the illegal pence brought in each day grew to be an expected thing, and formed now a constant cause of wrangling between husband and wife, each trying to secure the lion's share, only to spend it at the public-house.
At last, without one penny of that small sum of threepence, which she had mentally fixed on as the price of a domestic truce, she had got back to within fifteen minutes' walk of Moon Street. Her anxiety had made her more eager perhaps, and had given a strange tremor to her voice and made her eyes more eloquent in their silent pathos, when two young men pushed by her, walking fast and conversing, but she did not let them pass without repeating the oft-repeated words.
"No, indeed, you little fraud!" exclaimed one of the young men; while his companion, glancing back, looked curiously into her face.
"Stop a moment," he said to his friend. "Don't be afraid, I'm not going to pay. But, I say, just look at her eyes--good eyes, aren't they?"
The other turned round laughing, and stared hard at her face. Fan reddened and dropped her eyes. Finally he took a penny from his pocket and held it up before her. "Take," he said. She took the penny, thanking him with a grateful glance, whereupon he laughed and turned away, remarking that he had got his money's worth.
She was nearly back to her own street again before anyone else noticed her; then she met a very large important-looking gentleman, with a lady at his side--a small, thin, meagre woman, with a dried yellow face, wearing spectacles. The lady stopped very deliberately before Fan, and scrutinised her face.
"Come along," said her husband or companion. "You are not going to stop to talk to that wretched little beggar, I hope."
"Yes, I am, so please be quiet.--Now, my girl, are you not ashamed to come out begging in the streets--do you not know that it is very wrong of you?"
"I'm not begging--I'm selling matches," answered Fan sullenly, and looking down.
"You might have known that she'd say that, so come on, and don't waste more time," said the impatient gentleman.
"Don't hurry me, Charles," returned the lady. "You know perfectly well that I never bestow alms indiscriminately, so that you have nothing to fear.--Now, my girl, why do you come out selling matches, as you call it? It is only a pretext, because you really do not sell them, you know. Do your parents send you out--are they so poor?"
Then Fan repeated the words she had been instructed to use on occasions like the present, which she had repeated so often that they had lost all meaning to her. "Father's out of work and mother's ill, and I came out because we're starving."
"Just so, of course, what did you think she would say!>" exclaimed the big gentleman. "Now I hope you are satisfied that I was right."
"That's just where you are mistaken, Charles. You know that I never give without a thorough investigation beforehand, and I am now determined to look narrowly into this case, if you will only let me go quietly on in my own way.--And now, my girl," she continued, turning to Fan, "just tell me where you live, so that I can call on your mother when I have time, and perhaps assist her if it is as you say, and if I find that her case is a deserving one."
Fan at once gave the address and her mother's name.
"There now, Charles," said the lady with a smile. "That is the test; you see there is no deception here, and I think that I am able to distinguish a genuine case of distress when I meet with one.--Here is a penny, my girl"--one penny after all this preamble!--"and I trust your poor mother will find it a help to her." And then with a smile and a nod she walked off, satisfied that she had observed all due precautions in investing her penny, and that it would not be lost: for he who "giveth to the poor lendeth to the Lord," but certainly not to all the London poor. Her husband, with a less high opinion of her perspicacity, for he had muttered "Stuff and nonsense" in reply to her last remark, followed, pleased to have the business over.
Fan remained standing still, undecided whether to go home or not, when to her surprise a big rough-looking workman, without stopping in his walk or speaking to her, thrust a penny into her hand. That made up the required sum of threepence, and turning into Moon Street, she ran home as fast as those ragged and loose old shoes would let her.
The candle was still burning on the table, throwing its flickering yellow light on her mother's form, still sitting in the same listless attitude, staring into the empty grate. The man was now lying on the bed, apparently asleep.
On her entrance the mother started up, enjoining silence, and held out her hand for the money; but before she could take it her husband awoke with a snort.
"Drop that!" he growled, tumbling himself hastily off the bed, and Fan, starting back in fear, stood still. He took the coppers roughly from her, cursing her for being so long away, then taking his clay-pipe from the mantelpiece and putting on his old hat, swung out of the room; but after going a few steps he groped his way back and looked in again. "Go to bed, Margy," he said. "Sorry I hit you, but 'tain't much, and we must give and take, you know." And then with a nod and grin he shut the door and took himself off.
Meanwhile Fan had gone to her corner and removed her old hat and kicked off her muddy shoes, and now sat there watching her mother, who had despondently settled in her chair again.
"Go to bed, Fan--it's late enough," she said.
Instead of obeying her the girl came and knelt down by her side, taking one of her mother's listless hands in hers.
"Mother"--she spoke in a low tone, but with a strange eagerness in her voice--"let's run away together and leave him."
"Don't talk nonsense, child! Where'd we go?"
"Oh, mother, let's go right away from London--right out into the country, far as we can, where he'll never find us, where we can sit on the grass under the trees and rest."
"And leave my sticks for him to drink up? Don't you think I'm such a silly."
"Do--do let's go, mother! It's worse and worse every day, and he'll kill us if we don't."
"No fear. He'll knock us about a bit, but he don't want a rope round his neck, you be sure. And he ain't so bad neither, when he's not in the drink. He's sorry he hit me now."
"Oh, mother, I can't bear it! I hate him--I hate him; and he isn't my father, and he hates me, and he'll kill me some day when I come home with nothing."
"Who says he isn't your father--where did you hear that, Fan?"
"He calls me bastard every day, and I know what that means. Mother, is he my father?"
"Then why did you marry him, mother? Oh, we could have been so happy together!"
"Yes, Fan, I know that now, but I didn't know it then. I married him three months before you was born, so that you'd be the child of honest parents. He had a hundred pounds with me, but it all went in a year; and it's always been up and down, up and down with us ever since, but now it's nothing but down."
"A hundred pounds!" exclaimed Fan in amazement "And who was my father?"
"Go to bed, Fan, and don't ask questions. I've been very foolish to say so much. You are too young to understand such things."
"But, mother, I do understand, and I want to know who my father is. Oh, do--do tell me!"
"Because when I know I'll go to him and tell him how--how he treats us, and ask him to help us to go away into the country where he'll never find us any more."
Her mother laughed. "You're a brave girl if you'd do that," she said, her face softening. "No, Fan, it can't be done."
"Oh, please tell me, and I'll do it. Why can't it be done, mother?"
"I can't tell you any more, child. Go to bed, and forget all about it. You hear bad things enough in the street, and it 'ud only put badness into your head to hear talk of such things."
Fan's pleading eyes were fixed on her mother's face with a strange meaning and earnestness in them; then she said:
"Mother, I hear bad things in the street every day, but they don't make me bad. Oh, do tell me about my father, and why can't I go to him?"
The unhappy woman looked down, and yet could hardly meet those grey beautiful eyes fixed so earnestly on her face. She hesitated, and passed her trembling fingers over Fan's disordered hair, and finally burst into tears.
"Oh, Fan, I can't help it," she said, half sobbing. "You have just his eyes, and it brings it all back when I look into them. It was wicked of me to go wrong, for I was brought up good and honest in the country; but he was a gentleman, and kind and good to me, and not a working-man and a drunken brute like poor Joe. But I sha'n't ever see him again. I don't know where he is, and he wouldn't know me if he saw me; and perhaps he's dead now. I loved him and he loved me, but we couldn't marry because he was a gentleman and me only a servant-girl, and I think he had a wife. But I didn't care, because he was good to me and loved me, and he gave me a hundred pounds to get married, and I can't ever tell you his name, Fan, because I promised never to name him to anyone, and kissed the Book on it when he gave me the hundred pounds, and it would be wicked to tell now. And Joe, he wanted to marry me; he knew it all, and took the hundred pounds and said it would make no difference. He'd love you just the same, he said, and never throw it up to me; and that's why I married Joe. Oh, what a fool I was, to be sure! But it can't be helped now, and it's no use saying more about it. Now go to bed, Fan, and forget all I've said to
Fan rose and went sorrowfully to her bed; but she did not forget, or try to forget, what she had heard. It was sad to lose that hope of ever seeing her father, but it was a secret joy to know that he had been kind and loving to her poor mother, and that he was a gentleman, and not one like Joe Harrod; that thought kept her awake in her cold bed for a long time--long after Joe and his wife were peacefully sleeping side by side.